Juan Santana and his family have always been tight.
That was the case when they formed a family baseball team — Los Santana — back home in Naranjito, Puerto Rico and they would play other teams around the island:
“My cousins played and my uncles, too,” he said. “My dad was the catcher until I got old enough and then I caught and he played first or outfield, some place. Everywhere you looked on the field was a Santana. It felt good to be with family.”
It was the same even when Santana first came to Ohio — as a catcher on the baseball team and engineering student at Ohio Dominican University — and later, after moving back home to concentrate on his studies, when he was hired on at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base a decade ago to work as an electrical engineer and join a long line of other talented Puerto Ricans recruited to the base over the past 50 years.
Though far away, his family shared in each of his advancements and accomplishments here.
“Hispanic families are close and I’d talk to them all the time,” he said.
And that familial bond is what has led to an extraordinary effort now that Hurricane Maria nearly blew the island, especially Naranjito and the Santana family, away.
The eye of the Sept. 20 storm passed almost directly over his hometown, and as it did, a strange thing occurred, Santana said.
His father briefly had cell phone service and called Juan, whom he refers to by his middle name, Noel.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘Noel, there is a monster outside. It’s been trying to rip up our home and take everything out of it,’ ” Santana said.
“The winds were a sustained 155 miles an hour and swelled to 175. Just think of that going on for 12 to 18 hours! It was a monster.”
Hurricane Maria would be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 89 years. Ironically, Santana said his grandfather — who died three months before Maria struck — often had talked about the previous monster storm, the 1928 San Felipe Segundo that killed over 4,000 people across the Caribbean and U.S., including 312 in Puerto Rico.
“He said he never wanted to live through something like that again,” said Santana, who admitted he initially didn’t believe it was as bad as his grandfather had described — hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, towns nearly wiped out and an entire coffee crop destroyed.
“Thank God my grandfather wasn’t here for this one,” he said. “My father said to me, ‘Noel, it’s just like he described it. This is just as bad.’ ”
While the loss of life wasn’t as high, the destruction certainly is and with each passing day Puerto Rico finds itself in more of a humanitarian crisis.
More than three weeks after the storm, nine in 10 homes on the island of 3.4 million people still have no electricity and may not until at least January.
Nearly half the people have no safe drinking water. There are few cellphone connections. Most of the hospitals that are open are off the disabled power grid and are being run on generators, many which keep breaking down from overuse. People who need things like dialysis and oxygen often are forced to curtail their treatments or go without.
And with no electricity, there are no working fans or air conditioning units that thwart the onslaught of mosquitoes, which have been breeding in the storm waters and carry illnesses. Meanwhile, garbage is piling up and creating more health hazards.
The New York Times reported over 80 percent of the crop value has been destroyed. People are running out of food.
Roads are washed out. Others are covered in debris and downed power lines. Some towns are isolated.
When he was finally able to reach his family again, Santana said he was told they were OK.
“Now in Puerto Rico when you hear people say they are OK that just means they are alive,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they have the luxury of drinking water or power. They have almost nothing. They are just surviving.”
Deciding to help
In the days after the storm Santana spoke with his wife and other people at the base and they decided to do something.
“Based on my short experience, you have people who are leaders and people who are followers,” he said. “We had to be leaders.”
In the process he got advice from Tony Ortiz, the fellow Puerto Rican and mentor who was the longtime director of the athletic training program at Wright State, an associate VP of Latino Affairs at the school and now the diversity liaison to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Santana had gotten assistance from Ortiz before when he and another base engineer, Edgardo Santiago, teamed with Joselito Gracia, who worked for Northrop Grumman, to start The Academy for STEM and Sports (TAFSS) here that used athletics and games to teach STEM subjects to minority students and others in need.
That effort was successful until one of the men was transferred to California and Santana decided to devote more time to his two children, especially his 4-year-old who is autistic.
But when the hurricane hit, the relief effort became paramount, although he said initially it was “a small affair” on the base.
“We put out a couple of bins, hung up a couple of banners to let people know what was happening and had some Puerto Rican music, like salsa,” he said.
That effort took off and spread across WPAFB and to Wright State University, the University of Dayton, St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Allen Street and even Bill’s Donut Shop in Centerville.
The group filled one empty warehouse space on the base and then much of another.
“The people on this area have been tremendous,” he said. “They gave so much more than we ever imagined.”
He said his group has collected over 110 pallets filled with food and supplies. And once the Dayton effort joined forces with similar drives in the bigger Hispanic areas of Cleveland and Columbus, Ortiz estimates they now have amassed at least 25 tons and “maybe closer to 40 tons” of relief goods.
While Santana and the leaders of the other two drives have been able to line up storage space in Puerto Rico and even a distribution network there thanks to the mayors of 10 towns they’ve been in contact with, there is one big problem.
They need to get the supplies to Puerto Rico.
And they need to do so quickly because the crisis is worsening.
‘It’s really critical’
The ports are bottle-necked, Ortiz said, the process is slow and you don’t know for sure if your food and supplies are going to be distributed or where they will end up.
“So air transportation would be the best. We’re hoping someone could help us with that,” said Santana, who can be reached at 787-949-4315 and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ortiz said they had hoped to get the National Guard to airlift supplies to a designated spot in San Juan where the mayors — along with volunteers from the Miami Valley and especially the base — would get the goods to the needed areas, including some of the places in the mountains like Naranjito.
Santana did get a letter to Ohio governor John Kasich and then managed to arrange a phone call between Kasich and the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello.
Soon after, Kasich sent several Ohio National Guard members from various units around the state to the island to help with the effort.
“Honestly, anyone who can help us get stuff to Puerto Rico, we can use it,” said Santana. “It’s really critical. People are in such need.”
Santana worries not only how his homeland will get through the next few months, but the coming years.
“We had a very good public school system and a lot of the professionals you have here now came through those schools,” he said. “But now, with no infrastructure, they will close a lot of schools. Teachers will leave and you’ll have people with no education.
“I talked to my cousins and people like that, and they talk of leaving the island. I’m afraid soon all the people who could really produce, really make a difference, will be gone. In 10 to 15 years, you may see a population of old people.
“I can’t just watch that happen to my home. None of us can. That’s why we are trying to do everything we can right now.”
And why he needs your help.